Throughout his electoral campaign, President Joe Biden was up against the “Make America Great Again” or “MAGA” phenomenon. This was more of a rallying cry for a political movement than Donald Trump’s campaign slogan as such, and Biden’s response was to call for restoring the US to world leadership. In fact, he wrote an article on the subject in Foreign Affairs. The image we get from that article and from subsequent speeches and writings is that of a world that existed before the Trump administration. We can sum it up as follows: first, the US is the sole “true” superpower; secondly, its bundle of hard and soft military and technological powers inspire universal fear and respect; thirdly, all this makes it the leader of “globalization” on the planet and in outer space; and, fourthly, in addition, the US also possesses a noble idealistic purpose, namely to spread democracy and human rights across the globe.
This image of US world leadership reflects the situation as it stood at the turn of the century. It was one among several periods in which the US believed, as did the rest of the world at times, that it had a “destiny” to fulfil and that it was up to other countries to make way. When the neoconservatives came to power in Washington under George Bush Jr they expressed this view through the rubric that the 21st century should be just as much of an “American century” as the 20th.
Biden has a sense of modesty that keeps him from being so ambitious. He is aware that his country’s might has shrunk considerably. During the past four years, the world changed much more than most US political elites would care to imagine. Whether they are chasing liberal or conservative dreams, those elites are lacking in pragmatism. When a political leader is more in touch with a reality, he tries first of all to gain time or, to borrow from computer jargon, he presses “reset.” Applied to US foreign relations, this means reexamining the nature of Washington’s bilateral relations with foreign states and blocs, identifying the US’s specific interests with each and then charting a path forward accordingly. Which is precisely what Biden and his foreign policy and national security teams have been doing since his first few weeks in office. Then came a series of statements, visits and gestures, signalling to other parties what the US expects of them at this time.
Naturally, there is no stated deadline for the completion of the reset process. What we do know is that the Biden administration’s first priority - as is probably the case with other countries - is the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, Biden said that he could not promise a return to normalcy in the US before next Christmas. He added that as good a timeline as he could offer with any level of confidence.
Biden’s problem is that not all parts of the world are synced to the White House’s agenda and timetables. While the US was struggling with the fallout from the Trump administration’s delayed response to the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic impacts, China gained in influence, status and strength. Russian influence has also expanded, mostly in the strategic Mediterranean and Red Sea regions. Iran appears to be anticipating the opportunity to re-infiltrate countries it has infiltrated before and expand its reach and scope of aggression in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, probably with an increased use of arms and with some targeting of US military bases in the region. Certainly, Israel has not set the pace of settlement expansion activities according to the switch of administrations in Washington. For one, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has his eyes set on the Knesset elections in April and he plans to win them by catering to the settlers. Even Europe, where reset looked easier and quicker to achieve in the light of Biden’s campaign statements about how he was looking forward to putting US relations with Europe and NATO back on track, is more complicated than it had appeared. Europe itself has changed considerately in the past four years. The rise of rightwing Trump-style leaderships and conservative isolationist trends in Eastern Europe, the UK’s departure from the EU and the test case of the “Brexit” process as an avenue for departure, and the emergence of a new perception of the transatlantic Anglo-Saxon alliance are all aspects of this
Biden’s leadership style matches the way he wants to manage US affairs at home and abroad. It relies heavily on the various organisations that suffered attrition under Trump and that are keen to make a comeback through the research and studies they perform. Their task, however, is complicated by numerous urgent decisions the US administration has to make. Some of these, especially those related to the phased withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, are particularly critical. These are the places that throw into relief the contradictions between a practical approach to handling rapidly shifting realities, and foreign policy concepts informed by an American public opinion fed up with external involvement at a time when adversaries such as Iran and the Taliban are baring their teeth.
An analytical piece in The National Interest of 13 February 2021, titled “How Israel Is Preparing for War With Iran,” observed that Israel is increasingly signalling its readiness to attack Iran in order to build up pressure on both Washington and Tehran and that recourse to a military option could trigger a larger regional conflict. “On 25 January,” the article related, “the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Lt Gen Aviv Kochavi, said that the Israeli military was refreshing its plans for a strike on Iran to supplement Israel’s current strategy. Kochavi said that the IDF would develop its plans over the next year. The IDF reportedly requested $918 million to supplement its annual budget from the Knesset to develop military options for an Iran strike.” Such statements seem to throw down the gauntlet at US “leadership”, all the more so given that Biden wants his administration to be a moment of liberalism and democracy in arenas where the thinking is closer to violence, anarchy and military confrontation.
Biden’s intentions to restore the US to the helm of the international order may be sincere. But they may not be feasible because they fail to take into account variables that go beyond the ability to take a decision. Some of the aims of the new administration, especially those related to democracy and human rights, what is more, appear illogical. Clearly they do not take into account the US’s political engineering experience in Iraq, the results of the revolutions in Syria and even the US’s domestic experience in recent weeks.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly